After two masterful historical novels — The Right Hand of Sleep (2001) and Canaan's Tongue (2005) — acclaimed novelist John Wray plunges into the present with the spare, haunting story of 16-year-old paranoid schizophrenic Will Heller, a.k.a. Lowboy.
In a delusional state of near-panicked determination, Will is on a mission to save the world from the negative effects of climate change. "He'd been given a calling . . . a matter possibly of life and death. It was as sharp and light and transparent as a syringe. If he got careless now he might lose track of his calling, or confuse it with something else, or even forget his calling altogether. Worst of all he might begin to have his doubts."
Will dives headlong into the New York City subway system in search of one of his few friends, Emily, who has personally experienced Will's violent tendencies. Close on his heels is Ali Lateef, a single-minded detective working with Will's mother, Violet, to apprehend him before he commits another act of violence. But Lateef's comprehension of Will's delicate psychological state doesn't necessarily match the level of his focus and determination.
"His anger and his reticence made Lateef a man of solitary pleasures," writes Wray. "His tastes ran to 78-rpm records, statesmen's autobiographies, and single-malt Scotch, preferably from the Highlands; the women he knew referred to him, sometimes dismissively, sometimes wistfully, as Old Professor White."
With Lateef and Violet commiserating to predict the boy's next move, Will hops from train to train. He meets various denizens of the underground — including a Sikh man who is puzzled and occasionally offended by Will's quiet but earnest ranting about the trains and the man's religion; and Heather Covington, a vagrant crack addict who tries to seduce him in her subterranean hideout — all the while battling painful memories and his deteriorating grasp of reality.
"As soon as his eyes came open he regretted it," Wray writes. "The objects around him flickered for an instant before coming clear, as though he'd caught them by surprise, and their outlines began to twitch and run together. Oh no, he mumbled. The argon lights were stuttering like pigeons. There was some kind of intelligence behind them."
Using mostly simple, straightforward sentences, Wray fractures the narrative in brief paragraphs — without indentations and set apart by extra space — that not only reflect his protagonist's thought processes, but eventually coalesce into something much bigger as the narrative moves toward the disturbing climax.
Echoes of Dostoyevsky's Notes From the Underground reverberate throughout the novel, but Wray's talents run more toward the postmodernism of Salinger and Bellow. Always psychologically astute, Wray's razor-edged prose illuminates Will's character — a kind of hybrid of Holden Caulfield and Augie March — and ratchets up the tension as Will struggles to hold it together.
Eventually he tracks down Emily, but his mission is far from over. There's still a secret lurking in Violet's past, and each character must deal with the repercussions as the book comes to its gripping, unforgettable close.
Eric Liebetrau is an editor at Kirkus Reviews.